If you’ve found some buried iron while metal detecting and you’re a little hesitant to jump in and start scrubbing away the rust or dropping it in a bucket of hydrochloric acid, I can’t say I blame you.
If you read the first article in our cleaning series about cleaning copper coins, you are probably thinking about all the ways you can destroy this new piece of history.
Well, don’t worry! In the second post of our cleaning series, we will teach you all we know about cleaning iron found metal detecting. No matter if it’s an exciting iron relic or artifact, an old iron buckle covered in rust, or just some loose piece of wrought iron you are looking to clean and restore, we’ve got you covered!
So keep reading for all the tips and tricks to get your dug iron clean and shiny again.
** Disclaimer ** – While all the methods below have been tried and tested under different conditions, we recommend consulting a professional before attempting to clean any coin you think to be valuable.
How Do You Clean Iron Found Metal Detecting?
The best way to clean iron found metal detecting is through electrolysis. This is a process that uses an electric current to break down the molecules of a contaminant, allowing it to be removed from the metal object. You can do this at home with a few basic supplies.
However, this isn’t the only way to get your dug iron clean. There are several other commonly used methods like a vinegar bath, submerging it in coke (coca-cola), a commercial-grade rust remover like Evapo-Rust, and any number of different fruit juices containing some acidity.
Usually, you’re avoiding iron like the plague when metal detecting. But not all iron is trash. So, clean it and preserve it like any other valuable find you’ve discovered.
What Happens to Iron When It Rusts?
Before we go any further into the process of cleaning iron found metal detecting, it’s important to understand what happens to iron when it rusts and corrosion starts to occur.
When iron rusts it is going through a chemical reaction, known as oxidation, caused by water and oxygen coming into contact with the surface of an iron object.
If the rust is left untreated, it will eventually deteriorate the metal to a point where the iron loses all its valuable features like strength and longevity.
What’s interesting about iron and iron oxidation is that because oxygen is such a key element in causing further corrosion, it’s actually in less danger while still buried in the ground. Once it is dug up, the exposure to oxygen will be much greater and the risk of corrosion will increase.
This is why it’s so important to clean and preserve any iron objects you find while metal detecting, as they will be more susceptible to rust and corrosion once exposed to oxygen.
How Do You Clean an Old Iron Relic?
Cleaning an old iron relic is best done by electrolysis, which is a process that uses an electric current to facilitate chemical reactions and safely remove rust and other corrosives from metal surfaces.
Specifically, the process works by passing an electric current through a solution that contains the metal objects to be cleaned. The electric current causes the metal ions in the solution to migrate towards the oppositely charged electrodes.
This results in the formation of a clean, corrosion-free surface on the metal objects.
Cleaning old iron relics at home is a really simple process and even those new detectorists with no experience cleaning metal shouldn’t be worried about getting in over their heads.
The tools needed for proper cleaning by electrolysis are:
- Manual Battery Charger
- Appropriately Sized Container
- Water (tap water is fine)
- Baking Soda
- At Least 1 Sacrificial Metal Item
A later addition to our cleaning series details the start-to-finish process of using electrolysis for relics. But below are just a few factors to keep in mind when planning to clean your old iron relics.
- Make sure you are using a manual battery charger and not the more popular automatic option. The manual battery charger is ideal as the automatic may shut off at a certain point whereas the manual will not.
- You won’t need a ton of baking soda, depending on the size of your container or tank. Usually, a tablespoon per gallon of water will be enough. The baking soda ensures that the electrical current has sufficient flow since water alone isn’t conductive enough to get good results.
- The sacrificial metal item is what takes the bulk of the electrolytes created by electrolysis so that your dug iron relic reaps the rewards. Using just 1 is necessary, but if you can position 2 (1 on each side of the iron), your cleaning process will be much faster and more efficient.
- Be sure to run your electrolysis experiment in an open and ventilated area as excess oxygen and hydrogen will permeate.
- Aftercare will be needed for iron relic preservation. Baking the item will ensure all moisture has been removed and coating it in some hot wax adds a protective layer for years to come.
Cleaning Iron Relics With Vinegar
While electrolysis is the optimal way to clean iron relics, there are other ways to get the job done.
A vinegar solution is capable of cleaning iron relics and is a popular choice due to its non-abrasive makeup and its effectiveness at removing rust.
For iron relics that you want to make sure keep their value or at the least, you don’t make worse than when you started, a vinegar bath is an excellent choice.
The acidity levels in vinegar are generally fairly low and not harmful to iron relics as long as you clean them the right way. And by the right way, I mean to ensure that you take the additional steps to counteract the rusting effects that vinegar acid can have.
The process of cleaning iron relics with vinegar is simple and requires little work for you to do.
To start, grab a container that adequately holds your iron relic, and enough that you can completely submerge the metal in a vinegar solution.
Vinegar generally contains anywhere from 4% to 20% acidity, but 5% is the amount found in most store-bought vinegar.
It’s up to you to decide what kind of vinegar you want to use. Some people swear by apple cider vinegar. I usually use some distilled white vinegar for cleaning when I don’t use an electrolysis tank.
Honestly, both apple cider and white vinegar commonly come with 5% acidity, so it shouldn’t matter which way you go.
So, choose your vinegar, pour it into the container (with the iron relic already inside), and once the relic is completely submerged, cover the container.
If it doesn’t have a lid, just use some plastic wrap. If you don’t cover it, it won’t matter for the cleaning process. It’s just for the benefit of minimizing the strong smell of the vinegar.
Now you just wait 24 hours for the vinegar to do its job.
For many small relics, 24 hours is more than enough time. Larger iron relics may need a little longer in the vinegar, so check on them periodically.
You’ll know it’s time to take the relic out of the vinegar when the rust has dirtied the water and much of it can be wiped away as it has the texture of sludge.
Not all relics will clean this easy. You may need to scrub it with a wire brush for further cleaning. But before that, pour some hot water into a separate container with some baking soda mixed in.
Take your iron relic and let it soak for about 20 minutes or so. This will effectively remove any damaging acids still lingering on the relic.
If the acid solution is left on the metal and there is no more rust to clean, the solution starts to attack the metal itself. And you really don’t want that!
Now you can move on to brushing the iron relic under tap water or simply rinsing it if it’s clean enough.
Finally, add a protective seal to preserve the dug relic. As we’ve stated before, a good method is to use some microcrystalline wax. Just be sure the iron is completely dry before applying a preservation layer or you will trap the moisture with the metal and cause further damage.
Iron vs Wrought Iron
Iron is a naturally occurring element that has been used for centuries to create a variety of products, from tools and weapons to building materials. Wrought iron is a type of iron that has been wrought, or worked, into a specific shape.
In the past, wrought iron was often used to create ornate gates, anvils, and railings.
One key difference between iron and wrought iron is that wrought iron is much more malleable than iron. This means that it can be shaped into a range of intricate designs.
Why is this important?
Well, wrought iron is generally exposed to more elements as its more popular use is for fencing, gates, and outdoor furniture. And as such, wrought iron is more prone to rust.
While there are many ways to prevent wrought iron from rusting and regular steps you can take to provide continuous care, for this article, we are going to talk about how to clean wrought iron found metal detecting.
For general cleaning, tap water and dish soap work just fine with a good scrub brush, but if you happen to dig up an interesting-looking wrought iron relic, you’ll want something a little more delicate to restore your latest find.
Can You Use Vinegar to Clean Wrought Iron?
You can use vinegar to clean wrought iron by mixing equal parts vinegar and water, submerging the wrought iron in the solution, and covering it for several days.
This treatment is great for getting rid of rust without damaging the metal, but it is not an ideal method to clean the wrought iron of any grime that may have been baked on.
Personally, I use distilled white vinegar with 5% acidity for my solution. You can supplement any kind of vinegar you’d like, this is just my preferred method.
The amount of time it takes to clean wrought iron with vinegar will depend on how badly the metal is rusted. As long as you can see the fizzing taking place around the iron, you know it’s working.
Sometimes you can get lucky and after 24 hours, you’ll check the condition of your recent find and notice a considerable difference. The water should be a darker color and you’ll be able to see some of the shininess of the base wrought iron poking through.
If more time is required, this is completely normal. Just give it another couple of days and check again. Hopefully, the vinegar has done its job and you can move to the next phase.
If your wrought iron still has heavy traces of rust on the exterior, just place it back in the vinegar bath. Some detectorists leave their dug wrought iron soaking for weeks at a time.
The one thing you don’t want to do is let it sit longer than necessary. If the rust has been removed, you need to get the wrought iron out and rinse it off with fresh water. Otherwise, the acidity will further damage the metal since there is no more rust to eat away at.
When you decide it’s been soaking in the bath long enough, pull out your wrought iron relic, artifact, or frying pan, and grab yourself a stainless steel pad or wired brush.
Go ahead and scrub the leftover oxidation off the wrought iron while running it underwater.
Be sure when you finish, to completely dry the surface of the metal and you can start showing off your latest find to your friends.
Cleaning iron found metal detecting is easy enough that anyone can do it. Because of the durability that iron has, you don’t have to be as careful as you do with other metals, like copper. However, you still don’t want to drop your recently dug relic into a vat of acid either!
When attempting to clean iron you found while metal detecting, the best option you have is to use electrolysis. It’s safe, easy, and a surefire way to get that old rust off your new relic.
Vinegar has its advantages and can be a no-brainer when looking at a non-electric alternative. But rust removal by electrical current packs more of a punch when working with heavily encrusted metal.
I hope you enjoyed the read and got some value out of it. For more information on cleaning processes, be sure to check out the third installation of our cleaning series! We’ll take a well-rounded look at cleaning coins from the ocean, on the beach, in the sand, and even sunken treasures.
Until next time!